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Henry C. Soto Water Conservation Garden

A Volunteer Project

While Xeriscape has begun to gain national prominence, there are still many to whom the words “water conservation garden” bring to mind a vista of cactus and rock, plastic and sand, with not a colorful flower or leafy shrub in sight. But a new garden at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum puts to rest the outdated notion that water conservation and beautiful landscapes cannot co-exist.

This new garden, built on a scale that enables planners of residential landscapes to borrow ideas for their own projects, demonstrates the value of plant selection and proper irrigation methods in creating a water-thrifty landscape.

“We have used many plants that you might think are high water consumers,” said Francis Ching, Director of the Arboretum. “The idea behind the garden is to show our visitors that with proper irrigation they can have a colorful garden throughout the year, without wasting water.”

Robert Cornell, partner in the Los Angeles landscaping firm of Cornell and Wiskar and designer of the garden, says he selected nearly every plant for its brilliant flowers.

Careful Site Analysis

Careful site analysis that took into account the location’s sun/shade patterns and soil types was crucial to the garden’s design, Cornell said. Encompassing approximately 10,000 square feet of plant beds and pathways, the garden is divided into several zones that were determined primarily by sun patterns. Plantings and irrigation methods vary from one zone to another, providing visitors with a variety of ideas they can take home and apply to their own situations.

“In some sections we’ve used plants that are thought to be high water consumers, like hibiscus and calla lilies,” he said. “But given enough shade and a heavy clay soil, these plants can be relatively water-thrifty.”

The garden includes zones that combine shrubs and ground cover and thus require overall irrigation; sloped areas that utilize low-precipitation sprinklers to prevent runoff; as well as a desert zone that features individual shrubs with no ground cover and is watered with a drip system.

The garden features many water conserving plants from around the world.

Water usage varies significantly from one zone to another. Francis Ching pointed out that this variation provides a valuable teaching tool in that it enables visitors to compare the types of gardens that are possible at various water usage levels. Information on typical water usage per square foot will be provided for each zone.

Toro Irrigation System

“Landscaping has become a very technical business, and the irrigation system certainly is one of the most technical aspects of all,” Cornell said. “It is not enough that the irrigation system is designed for water efficiency. The system also must be properly installed, and then it must be programmed to water when the plants need it most,” he said.

The water conservation garden is irrigated using Toro controllers, valves and sprinklers. Cornell specified Toro sprinklers throughout the garden because Toro sprinklers and nozzles feature a wide selection of spray patterns and application rates to accommodate the garden’s differing plant heights, soil types, slopes and wind conditions.

“With the proper nozzles, you get a great deal of water conservation simply from the standpoint that you are able to very accurately distribute the water where you want it and nowhere else,” he said. “Toro offers over 75 different spray and bubbler nozzles with varying throws, which allows you a great deal of precision in how you spread the water out. There’s no spill-over onto the walkways where it is wasted, so you can make every drop count.”

To eliminate water waste caused by fogging and misting, Toro offers “fog-less” spray nozzles that maintain optimum water pressure under high pressure conditions, and correct for pressure changes caused by differences in terrain, elevation or long lateral sprinkler lines.

“Developing and promoting water conserving products like Fog-Less(TM) nozzles is a responsibility of irrigation product manufacturers such as Toro,” says Toro’s Director of Marketing, Steve Swenerton. “However we believe we have an obligation to educate end users in proper water conservation practices as well as landscape architects. Thus, we are pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the L. A. Arboretum Project.

Water Sensors Determine Watering Schedule

Each of the garden’s separate zones employs a moisture-sensing device to determine precisely when various parts of the garden should be watered. Cornell describes water sensors as “a long way from being perfected,” but says that, particularly for residential landscaping, they are bound to become more widely used as their reliability improves.

Color can be found in a variety of water-conserving plant material.

“We still run into a fair number of problems with water sensors, so we consider them to be somewhat experimental,” he said. However, while large commercial sites have other, more precise ways to determine when and how long to water, he believes that in-ground sensors are the only practical method at this time for residential gardeners to automatically regulate watering according to atmospheric conditions.

Garden Features Plants From Many Countries

One secret to putting together a cohesive garden is selecting plants that complement each other in appearance and will thrive under the same watering conditions. The arboretum’s water conservation garden features plants from many parts of the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Chile and the Southwestern United States, but most of the plants come from areas with climates that feature warm, dry summers and wet, cool winters.

“Although they are in different plant families and have originated in different parts of the world, they are very similar in appearance and have similar requirements,” Cornell said.

``For instance, many have small, dark green or grey, felt-like foliage, and tend to go somewhat dormant in the late summer. Their leaves are more resistant to sunlight than plants with brilliant green foliage, because they reflect the light better. Hence, these plants more easily adapt to water conservation.”

Conservation Theme

Named the Henry C. Soto Garden, after an originator of the California Landscape Contractors Association who had a keen interest in all types of conservation, the garden employs a wide variety of recycled construction materials. Its retaining walls are built with old railroad ties and pieces of broken concrete, and used tiles line the walkways, giving the garden an aged look from its inception.

The garden’s centerpiece is a large Brazilian pepper tree, rescued by Soto several years ago from an area that was to be bulldozed to make way for freeway expansion and donated by Soto’s widow, Rosemary Head. Moved from its original site in an eight-foot box, the tree is estimated to be 40 to 50 years old, and is shaped, according to Ching, “like a very large and beautiful bonsai.”

All costs for the garden, estimated at $130,000 to $150,000 in labor and materials, were donated. Large donors include the Metropolitan Water District, the Department of Water and Power, the Atlantic Richfield Foundation and The Toro Company. Cornell gave many hours of his time to design and oversee construction of the garden, and many companies and individuals, including members of the Los Angeles Chapter of CLCA, donated their skills and materials to help make the garden a reality.

Still Not Enough

Ching and Cornell agree that conserving the water we have is crucial if we are to maintain our green spaces for future generations.

Ching points out that water conservation is everyone’s responsibility.

“There are those who say, ‘Look at all the people with swimming pools. We should get rid of the pools first.’ Others point to farming and industry, use 80 to 90 percent of our available fresh water and waste much of it.”

“We can all blame each other, all the way down the line. But if we all don’t start to do our part in water conservation, then nothing is going to work.”

Cornell believes that, in general, landscape architects and contractors do not yet think enough about water conservation. “There are going to have to be more financial incentives,” he said. “Fortunately, these incentives are coming. Already, Los Angeles is working on guidelines for water conservation in commercial landscaping, and other restrictions are sure to follow.

“We need green spaces, we need colorful gardens. They make people happy. And if we are going to continue to enjoy them, we have to learn to make the most of every drop of water available to us. We have to stop wasting so much.”

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June 18, 2019, 8:54 pm PDT

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